Monday, December 31, 2012

Camino Entry 32

Where am I today?

Entry 32, December 26th, 2011

Expenses, Day 32
Burgos Cathedral: 2.50
Postcards: 2.20
Burgos Munincipal Albergue: 5.00
Chinese Food: 12.00
Churros con chocolate: 4.00
Replacement toothbrush + toothpaste: 5.00
Total: 32.70
Trip Total: 738.53

Another beautiful day today – not a cloud in the sky. Cresting the ridge out of Agés we found a huge series of concentric circles, made of white stones placed by pilgrims in the heath. It was very strong – a rock in the center had “love” painted on it.

Also from the ridge we could see Burgos, and beyond – the meséta. I am excited – time to put on some serious kilometers to León! My feet feel great, and my boots feel like sex on two feet. It is not the enemy, impatience, that urges me on, but enthusiasm!

Cleber found me a perfect walking stick at the albergue last night. It is exactly the right height and is smooth and straight. I appreciated it on the way down the hill. Now I feel like a real pilgrim.

The addition of the stick is tempered by the fact that I keep forgetting things. I left my watch behind on Christmas Eve, and this morning I left my whole toiletries bag behind. No great loss, as I only had a toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, soap, and toenail clippers, but an annoying one. I need to find soap, and the floss was useful to have as string.

We ate Chinese food today in Burgos, as the Master was craving rice. At the restaurant (La Gran Muralla – the great wall) we were translating through three languages – Korean to English to Spanish to the server, and back from Spanish to English to Korean to the Master. The Koreans didn't want to tip – old animosities die hard, I guess. The food was okay. My stomach was feeling unsettled earlier, but is doing alright now.

The cathedral here is amazing, easily on par with Notre Dame in terms of raw beauty. Gothic, Gothic, Gothic!!! But for something so rich and ornamented, it was surprisingly bright inside. I always expect Gothic architecture to be very dark, but it never is. I guess it really is all about light. El Cid and his wife were buried here – it was not so much a cathedral as it was a complex.

And so rich in storytelling! Everywhere there were tombs and chapels of so-and-so and such-and-such, all covered entirely in Christian imagery. The choir in particular; each seat had three different scenes engraved on it from different stories – that makes hundreds of narratives in that space alone! How can anyone keep track of so much history?

If I had to describe Spain in one word, it would be “richness.” Rich storytelling, rich architecture, rich food – we found another chocolatería. Chocolate con churros, mmm . . . the place was all decked out in Charlie Chaplain stuff, which was a bit of a non-sequiter; not that we were complaining.

Later I was in town again to find a toothbrush, and the place was bustling. Christmas in Spain seems to begin on the 25th and run until January 6th, the day when the wise men arrived (and the day that children get their presents). People were caroling in the plaza, food vendors were everywhere, and it was packed!

I stopped and listened to a street violinist for a while. Here on the camino, without iPod or computer, I feel starved for music. Anything I hear is like water to a man in the desert – it falls straight into my depths. I crave it. Harmonies are the sweetest treats in the world. My sensitivity is heightened . . . I love it!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Camino Entry 31

**New Feature!**

Where am I?

Entry 31, December 25th, 2011

Merry Christmas!

The family is at home right now (almost exactly right now, actually) opening presents and eating breakfast. I just crested the top of the pass on the way to the monastery of San Juan de Ortega. We may not stop there, because it's probably closed – Agés is the next city. We'll see.

I'm so glad to be here, even though I'm missing Christmas.

We passed through an old forest on the way up the mountain. In the stark winter light, the trees are black and white splinters, crackling in the brisk air. Fragile brown moss covers everything and crumbles to dust between the fingers, draped over branches and stone alike. The only green is a bit of long bladed grass and the clusters of pines scattered here and there. A hint of red bubbles through the undergrowth – stinging nettles.

An old, twisted forest – a muted palate of browns, grays, and reds. The clay is laced with frost underfoot. Winter in Spain.

Expenses, Day 31
Albergue, Dinner Menu, Breakfast (Agés): 20.00
Total: 20.00
Trip Total: 705.83

The albergue at the monastery was closed, so we moved on. I did stop and take a look inside the basilica, though. It is not every day that one has a basilica to themselves on Christmas.

San Juan Ortega is mostly in the Romanic style, with a huge Gothic sepulchre in the middle. Everything was in white stone – with the brilliant, washed-out winter light coming in it was quite beautiful and absolutely quiet, like a forest after a snowfall. I sat in front of the tomb of San Juan de Ortega – a plain, unadorned thing (1080 – 1163), and lit a candle.

Who would have guessed a year ago that I would be here adventuring, visiting the tombs of saints and sleeping in caves!

I could have asked for no better Christmas present than an afternoon of quiet moments, and that's what I got. There was a hill later with a meadow and a scattering of old oak trees that I sat under for a while.  It is nice to know that there are still quiet places in the world, places beyond McDonald's and the internet . . . places with meadows and oak trees.

I crossed the ridge to see Agés, pop. 50, nestled in the valley below. The albergue is a maze of warm rooms and good smells – the last of the family have been departing throughout the evening from last night's Christmas dinner. We have a big pan of paella to look forward to, the eight of us. It will be good after today's 28km.

To read: “The Art of Possibility,” Benjamin Sander

Monday, May 28, 2012

Crystal Symphony Entry 17

Today has been a day of strange and fantastic guest comments.

Earlier in the afternoon, during our tea time set, the orchestra was playing Glenn Miller’s “Little Brown Jug.”  It’s a simple tune (more like a riff dressed up in orchestration than anything else), and as we outnumbered the audience I decided to have a little fun with the solo by pushing the melody back a beat each chorus.  For those of you who aren’t musicians, this is the equivalent of Ives sending two marching bands past each other playing different songs at the same time.  It cracked the band up (our reed player hand his sleeve stuffed in his mouth to keep from laughing), which is what we need every once in a while to stay sane on these sets.

As soon as we finished an elderly man approached us.  “You guys sound great! You sound way better than the so-called ‘Glenn Miller Band’ that was here on the crossing!  They were way too loud and brassy, but you have the real sound!  I grew up listening to the original 78s and so I would know!”

We thanked him politely and he walked away.  Yes, I imagine our band IS a little quieter than the Glenn Miller Orchestra.  That’s what happens when you cut thirteen horns down to three . . . but the comparison is ludicrous.  They sounded fantastic.

Later, after our “big band” set (such as it was, with six pieces), a lady came up to us.  “I was really upset that you didn’t play In the Mood!”

We apologized and mentioned that we’d include it next time.

“I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but it’s really a big band classic!”  And she stormed off.

Lady, you have no idea.  I'm reminded of the old bandstand joke, where musicians wish that Glenn Miller had lived and his music had died.

Anyway.  My little remaining faith in our onboard audience is quickly melting away.  Time to get off the ship . . .

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Camino Entry 30

Entry 30, December 24th, 2011

Shopping List:

8 baguettes
Parmesan Cheese

White sugar
Brown sugar
Baking Powder (polva de horniar)
Chocolate Chips

2 bottles of wine
4 kg pasta
1 kg shrimp
1 L oil
Nata de Leche

1 Bottle KAS Limon (for Ernesto)

Our group is spending Christmas Eve in Belorado.  Belorado is a big pilgrim town; there is an impression of Martin Sheen’s feet here in cement from when he visited while filming the movie.  I reached the town first and left a message in stones for the others while I went to look for albergues – there was only one open.

Wan Woo and I went grocery shopping for Christmas dinner.  I volunteered to make garlic bread and cookies, while the Master made seafood pasta.  On our way back from the store, we ran into another pilgrim who was traveling on her own and brought her back with us to the albergue for dinner.

The cookies proved to be a challenge.  The only store was open for only a few hours and had a limited selection – in particular, it had no baking powder, brown sugar, vanilla extract, or chocolate chips.  We were able to find some dried vanilla, which we cut up and ground into powder, and a few smashed chocolate bars were more than sufficient to replace the chocolate chips, but when it came to baking powder and brown sugar I was stumped.  Finally I just went ahead and made them with doubled white sugar and no powder, and they turned out fairly well.  Not my best batch ever, but considering the ingredients and the number of kilometers we walked today I was happy with them.  So were the others.

Dinner was delicious, and noisy.  The new pilgrim is German, so we’ve added another language to the table.  What a strange Christmas I’m having!

Expenses, Day 30
Albergue: 6.00
Dinner: 6.00
Provisions: 5.00
Total:  17.00
Trip Total: 685.83

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Crystal Symphony Entry 16

Two nights ago we passed through the Strait of Gibraltar again, headed for the Atlantic.  I went out on the bow and watched for a while, as it was the perfect night for it and I missed the transit last time.

It's a sight that I will remember for a long time.  On the right were the lights of Spain and Europe, glittering in an orange line along the coast and away into the distance.  On the left they were matched by the lights of Africa.  In the center, just to starboard, the rock of Gibraltar stood silhouetted against this backdrop, an inky blotch of darkest black against the soft glow of orange halogens. 

Behind us (off the port quarter) the moon was beginning to rise, fading out the stars around it one by one.  Rows of freighters riding gently at anchor stretched off to the horizon on both sides; little towers of light in a glassy sea.  The night was calm and the ship was making little headway, but there was a gentle breeze coming from land that carried the dusty scent of North Africa with it.

Whenever I look at a map and see the strait, this is the image that I’ll remember.
Note: not my picture.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Camino Entry 29

Day 29, December 23rd, 2011

Grape vines in winter.
I picked some grapes this morning, left over on the vines in a vineyard.  They had almost thawed from last night's frost.  So good, so sweet, so cold.  I am reminded of William Carlos Williams:

This Is Just To Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold


Whenever I feel homesick, the solution is to ask, "Am I absolutely certain that this is exactly what I should be doing right now?"  The answer is always yes.

I wonder if my demon on this camino is the need to arrive . . .

Expenses, Day 29

Café con leche: 1.10
Provisions: 5.00
Albergue: 10.00
Dinner: 7.00
Total: 23.10
Trip Total: 668.83


You know that it's cold in the albergue when you piss in the toilet and steam comes out.

We had a warm dinner, though.  Ernesto made paella, which I record the process of which here for posterity:

One stick of butter and a minced onion -- grill in pan.
Add raw rice and a cup of wine.  Mix.
Simmer meat and matching type of broth in pot with garlic.
Add broth and meat bit by bit to the rice and onions.  Cook down and eat.

We also had wine, ice cream with peaches, chorizo and artichokes with bread, and a Korean feast.  All in all, it was a triumphant feast.  Good comrades and good conversation, if a bit too much wine.

Two temporary additions to our group = Mardas, a Latvian, middle-aged guy with a pony tail who has been living on the camino for the past five years as sort of a traveling steward (he's a bit of a loner), and a young Japanese guy who has cycled from St. Jean Pied-de-Port.  He's gotten this far in only three days, and on a 30 euro bicycle that he bought in France!  And here I am, 29 days in . . . I daresay the thing will fall apart on him by Compostela, by the looks of it.

So, around the table we had (in no particular order) (and I include our nicknames):

1 American (me) (Superman)
4 Koreans (Warrior, Beauty, GPS, and Master)
1 Japanese (Samurai)
1 Brazilian (Joker)
1 Venezuelan (Beast)
1 Latvian (Mardas hasn't got a nickname yet)

No Ursula today, although she stopped by the albergue.  She is in a hotel for Christmas, and took a field trip today to see some incredibly old documents -- supposedly they are the oldest written Spanish in the world.

Languages spoken at the dinner table included: English, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Korean, and Japanese.  I am so lucky to be here, and I cannot imagine living without having this kind of experience.  How can people live their whole lives without realizing how big the world is?!?

I cannot imagine not having lived the past year in the company of people from all over the world.  They are my brothers and sisters.  I would not be a complete person without this experience.

And I definitely chose the coldest spot to spread my sleeping bag.  Ego and my reputation as a Michigander are at stake here, after all.  We'll see what ego thinks about that in the morning.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Crystal Symphony Entry 15

I’ve really fallen off of the blog bandwagon lately.  I have no excuse other than the half-finished entry about Istanbul (first of two parts!) sitting stubbornly on my desktop, refusing to complete itself.  While I wait for that pot to come to boil, I’m going to write about today and my visit to the monastery-mountain of Montserrat.

View of Santa Cova from the cable car.
I’ve been to Montserrat twice before; once while working on the Grandeur, and once while on the Camino.  You can find the first visit here:

And my second visit here:

The Crystal Symphony is headed West again from Istanbul and with most of the day off today in Barcelona I decided to pay a third visit to the monastery.  It seemed only fitting – on my first visit, I had a powerful experience that led me to the Camino, and the second visit was the first major milestone on my road to Santiago.  A third, concluding visit was in order.

The train ride from Plaza Espanya takes about an hour.  It is amazing to me that I can cover that distance by train in only an hour when last time it took four days to walk.  Cataluña is either in the very end of spring or the very beginning of summer – either way, the thick, verdant green foliage is fresh and fragrant with the muscular power of summertime.  It’s going to be hot here, and soon.

The first view of the mountain was impressive, as always.  Tourists had their cameras out (that is, the tourists who didn’t have their bags lifted on the third stop . . . it was quick and surgical, I didn’t even notice the thieves until afterwards) and were snapping shots through the train windows, craning their necks at the peaks above and clicking their tongues in frustration when we went through tunnels.  Luckily, the cable car ride up the side of the mountain is a much better photo opportunity, and I was not disappointed with the flurry of shutters filling the tiny cabin as we sped through midair.

The chapel of Santa Cova was my goal.  This is apart from the main monastery and is built against the cliff at the spot where an image of the Virgin Mary was supposedly found over a thousand years ago.  It is a powerful place, one that inspires people to prayer, and even though I didn’t find what I was looking for last time I visited, it is still an important place in my personal history.

This time I had the chapel to myself.  Everything was just as it was the first time I visited – the grotto with its simple stone altar, the two rows of simple wicker furniture, the rack of candles burning softly in the back of the room.  It was quiet, quiet, quiet!  So quiet that I could hear the candles burning.  There have been very few times in my life where I’ve felt the need to pray, but something about the chapel of Santa Cova usually brings it out in me and this time was no exception.

The first time that I visited, I was just beginning to wake up and I prayed for the strength to act despite fear.  The second time, I was footsore and discourage, and I did my best to renew that wish.  This time, though, I sat there in that silent chapel, listening to the candles burn behind me, and had no idea what to ask for.

I got bored.  My mind wandered; it was stuck at a brick wall and so it went sideways.  I started thinking about all the places I’d seen since the first time I visited – the beautiful people I’d met, the weird things that had happened on the strange road to Santiago . . . I thought of the red brown dust of Cataluña, the relentless wind on the meseta, and the strange Basque language called Euskara.  I thought of the complex, captivating scent of Buenos Aires.  I thought of the sound of a carnival drum line starting up in Rio de Janeiro.  I heard the first call to worship in Istanbul echoing from the minarets around me.

And that’s when I realized it.  I had not come here to ask for anything, but rather to say thank you.  I said it, and then I said it again out loud.  I wanted to laugh, it was so simple.  That’s what prayer is; not asking, but giving.

There is a small room off the main chapel where people leave gifts, tokens to the goddess (er, the Virgin Mary . . . I’m reading too much Joseph Campbell lately and all the traditions are starting to blur together) in thanks for boons received.  I still had the last seashell from Finisterra . . . it had been tucked away in a tiny plastic bag along with my tuxedo studs, packed in my luggage when I left home again in February.  I didn’t know why I had brought it along until earlier that morning, getting dressed in the pitch blackness to the snores of my roommate.  The shell was an offering, a gift from the end of the world given to that which sent me there in the first place.  I left it with a string of other camino shells in the chapel – apparently I am not the first one to have had this experience.

Now I can finally come home.  This is an idea that will be developed more fully when I finally get around to posting those camino entries from Finisterra, but suffice it to say that I reached the end of the world only to find that the way back from a pilgrimage is just as important as the way there.  That’s why things felt so wrong when I arrived in Michigan in January – it wasn’t time to be home yet.  The way back had to be considered.

And with this visit to Santa Cova, I have found what I was looking for.  Now I can come home.  This journey, started March before last and almost three times as long as originally planned, is coming to an end.

Also, I finally got some pictures of a portion of the camino that I walked!  It was good to see the signs again.

A paving stone with the camino symbol, just outside the monastery.  This is one of the signs I followed on Day 6 of the camino.

A sign for the GR6, the trail I followed to Montserrat from Barcelona.  I passed this sign on Day 4 of the camino.

A sign I found in the cable car parking lot for an alternate path along the camino.  I did not take this path, but this is an excellent example of one of the ubiquitous yellow arrows.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Untranslateable Word of the Day 5/4/12

Untranslateable word of the day: Sohbet.

From Sadiq Alam:

the sufis say:
there are three ways to relate to the Divine:
one is prayer,
a step up from that is meditation,
and a step up from that is sohbet *.

* what sufi mystics mean by sohbet is difficult to translate in english. simply put, it means conversation of 'a totally different nature'. its conversation between friends of spirit and heart, its deep listening and transmission of heart as well. everything in the created cosmos are also in conversation always and those with attuned ears of the inner heart are able to listen to them.!/2008/07/stay-close-to-any-sounds-sohbet-is-deep.html

Friday, April 27, 2012

New Camino Blog

I've added a link to another pilgrim's blog over on the right.  Her name is Annie, and she's beginning her fourth camino in the next few days from Barcelona, just as I did last winter.  I wish her the best of luck; go check out her blog at:

Buen camino!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Crystal Symphony Entry 14


Yup.  It's time for a gratutious picture post.  These are some pictures from our recent stops in Italy, Greece, and Turkey.  First up -- the Roman city of Ephesus.

At one point, Ephesus was one of the four largest cities in the Roman empire, housing more than 250,000 people.  The ruins you can see above date from one of the several rebuildings of the city on different sites -- the Hellenistic city was relocated due to malaria and the silting in of its port (a problem that has not stopped -- the Roman port of Ephesus is now three miles from the Aegean Sea!).  I took the first picture while lying flat on my back on the porch of the library of Celsus.  Here you can see a better veiw of the library's reconstructed facade.  On the right is a ceremonial gate leading to the central marketplace, the Agora.

These were one of the many baths in the city.  You can see the remains of the pillars that held up the floor so that hot air from the furnaces could circulate through the caldarium and tepidarium. 

Here's a detail of a street mosaic in front of a block of housing for the Roman elite.  The richness and detail visible in these two thousand year old mosaics is stunning.

Ephesus's patron goddess was Artemis, or Diana under Roman rule.  The original, Hellenestic city was the site of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Temple to Artemis.  Unfortunately, time has not been kind to the ancient wonders (with the notable exception of the pyramids) and this lone pillar is all that's left.  The other one hundred and seventy nine of them have disappeared into the churches and mosques of the region, and it is rumored that some of them even made it into the framework of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.

The Greek island of Santorini rests on the rim of a volcanic caldera.  This picture shows the sharp black volcanic rock that still defines the old cone of the volcano -- the city of Fira is visible clinging to the top of the crater rim in the picture below.  The M/S Sea Diamond sank here in 2007.

The city of Fira.

Mykonos is a poplar tourist destination in the Greek islands.  Typical of Greece, everything is painted brilliant white with blue trim, just like the colors of the Greek flag.  This particular square is in a part of the city known as Little Venice -- some of the streets here were so narrow that you had to step into shops to let a scooter go by.

Here's another shot of Mykonos, with olive trees in the foreground and the Symphony anchored in the background.  Greece is quite warm already this time of year, and Myknonos is dry and rugged -- there are lots of pastel earth tones here to contrast with the bright blue and white of the city.

This is the old city of Rhodes.  The old city lies within the city wall, nearly all of which is still intact.  The Byzantine Empire and the Knights Hospitaller were responsible for the construction of these fortifactions, which resisted a series of Ottoman attacks until 1522, when the Knights were driven out by Suleiman the Magnificent and the island fell under Muslim rule once again.  The Knights retreated to Sicily and finally Malta.

Rhodes was also the location of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world -- the Colossus, a giant bronze statue that stood astride the entrace to the harbor.  Destroyed by earthquake and salvaged for the metal, no trace remains.  These two small pillars mark the supposed location of the Colossus, although no one is really sure.  Oh, and our base player snuck into this picture; hi Scotty!

Italy, in contrast to Greece, is not at all dry and dusty, but rather exploding with lush greenery.  This is the view from Taormina, in Sicily, at a small restaurant where we ate lunch.  Pizza om nom nom . . .

And this is a view of Mt. Etna, an active volcano on the island of Sicily.  It is the second largest volcano in the European/North African region and is extremely active.  Sylvain, our subsitute bass player (Scotty was on vacation) laughed when we asked him how the best way to go see the mountain was -- it's pretty impossible to miss!

And somehow band members keep slipping into these pictures -- that's David, the drummer and bandleader.

Istanbul tomorrow!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Camino Entry 28

Day 28, December 22nd, 2011
Expenses, Day 28
Pastries: 2.90
Coffee: 1.10
Dinner: 3.65
Chocolate: 2.00
Albergue: 10.00
Total: 19.65
Trip Total: 645.73

Today was another short day, just because of how things worked out.  Tomorrow will be more than 20 kilometers.  I'm in Nájera.

And the albergue is busy!  The three Koreans and Ernesto are back, along with an older Korean man who the call the “master.”  He's the president of his local walking association back home, and is a professional.  Ursula's here, as well, and a Brazilian guy named Cleber that the other guys picked up.  Quite a group, really.

I love them all, but we are a dysfunctional little organization.  It is good that we have the chance to get away from each other on the road.  People don't go on pilgrimages because they have things figured out – they go because they don't have things figured out, and we are excellent proof of that.

The Christmas festivities in Spain are in full swing.  Nájera is all decorated – the little Santas on ladders or paragliders hanging from windows and balconies are particularly popular this year.  The square next to the albergue has been taken over by children who have constructed a miniature Jerusalem.  Angels on roller skates, little Arabs with Crayola beards, and straw and tents are everywhere!  They're selling hot cakes, telling fortunes, and singing.  It's impressive, really.

The Christmas music playing on Calle Mayor (Frank Sinatra) made me a little homesick for friends and family.  I can tell that it would be a lot worse if I wasn't feeling the Christmas spirit as strongly as I am right now.  Usually I get a bit of the Charlie Brown, “Why don't I feel in the spirit?” syndrome each year about this time, but this year it never materialized.  It probably has something to do with being on the camino.

I am thinking a bit about what I will do when I get home.  I know, I shouldn't, I should instead focus on what I am doing here, but I can't help it.  I am thinking about spending some time at a zen center.  Student?  Resident?  Renter?  I dunno.  I need to go talk to the monks and see if it feels right.  Maybe a pilgrimage to zen centers in the USA in is order.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Camino Entry 27 (concluded)

I passed a long section of fence today where pilgrims had made crosses by inserting two bits of stick or other material between the chain links.  It is these little expressions of love that I love about my fellow pilgrims, things that make me feel like part of a larger whole even as the company changes.

I'm learning about the difference between Wanderers and Travelers by watching my fellow pilgrims.  I am not a wanderer – there is too much to do.  What I am is a traveler.  Jay, on the other hand, is happy going about wherever his heart takes him.  Sally was in a handcart group for ten years in England.  I am not a wanderer like them.  I am flexible in direction and goal (as my extended stay here in Europe proves) but my have always been goal driven.

Where does Chatwin fit on this scale?  More like me, I think – flexible in direction, implacable in the pursuit of that direction.  Rimbaud is more the other way.

I’m watching an old Western in the café with all the old local men – one of the characters is named Santiago.  “Mas Alta de Rio Grande;” it has a hero with a perfectly mournful face.  I love that a movie set in Mexico needs to be dubbed into Spanish.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Camino Entry 27

Day 27, December 21st, 2011

This morning as I was leaving the albergue I was glancing through the bookshelf.  Something called “Diary of a Magus” caught my eye – it sounded familiar and as I flipped it open I realized that it was a British printing of Coelho’s “The Pilgrimage.”  Finding a book about the Camino while actually on the Camino is not that surprising, but finding an English version of a book that brought me here out of nowhere feels like a sign that I am on the right path.

I flipped it open, and it landed on a discussion about one of Jesus’s sayings that I had stuck in my head all last night after reading the Occupy Wall Street stuff.  “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven.”  Directly afterward, Coelho confronts his camino’s demon for the first time.  Was this a warning to me?  Am I about to confront mine?  I’ll be on my guard today.

Today is halfway, according to my original calculations, and also the winter solstice.  Logrono glitters below me – I’m off.

Expenses, Day 27
Cheese + Chocolate Milk: 5.38
Faux Moleskine Notebooks: 24.00
Café con leche: 1.10
Total: 30.48
Trip Total: 626.08

Friday, April 20, 2012

Camino Entry 26

Day 26, December 20th, 2012

Expenses, Day 26:
Pastry: 2.85
Coffee: 1.10
Stamps: 16.00
Churros con chocolate: 4.00
Phone albergue: 2.00
Albergue: 6.00
Provisions + Dinner + Dessert: 11.00
Internet: 1.00
Total: 43.95
Trip Total: 595.60

It has been a slow couple of days on the camio -- 20km, 20km, and 18km today.  I didn't want to push the extra 9km to Logrono with my left shin still hurting.  It is better again today and I should be %100 tomorrow.

Tonight I am in Viana, in a beautiful old shelter with high ceilings and triple bunks.  There are two other pilgrims there that I haven't met before -- a French woman and a Spanish guy.  The Spaniard is a professional tennis player and is walking nearly 40km a day.  Did I mention that the Spanish are fantastic walkers?

I sent my habitual weekly "I'm still alive" email back home today, and while I had a minute or two I checked in on the Occupy Wall Street site.  People are still fighting the good fight!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Crystal Symphony Entry 13

Nearly everyone has heard of Pompeii, the Roman city that was buried during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD and subsequently preserved. It is an astounding archaeological windfall; a city of 20,000 people, uniformly preserved on the same day, and left undisturbed until the modern era. When I discovered that we were anchoring off of Sorrento, a thirty five minute train ride from Pompeii (and within sight of mighty Vesuvius) I had to go see the city.

Sorrento is located near the end of a peninsula to the south of Napoli and Vesuvius. Like most cities in this part of the world, it was originally settled by the Phoenicians. The city sits on a sheer cliff above the water that is broken only by a narrow ravine coming down from the mountains. A road winds up through several switchbacks to the main plaza of the city, which stretches from one side of the ravine to the other. Underneath it has been filled with buildings, a mishmash of masonry from different centuries that results in a number of clubs below street level that are accessible on by narrow iron staircases clinging to the side of the cliff.

The city itself is an upscale collection of plastered buildings in various pastel shades. Sorrento has the appearance of a refuge for those who enjoy a bit of peace and quiet (and have to money to go find it). We had some of the best food of my life later that evening . . . but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The easiest way to get around in this region is a narrow gauge railway called the Circumvesuviana. A variety of lines operate out of Napoli, and Sorrento is one of the three final stops. It was pouring rain when I left the ship, and by the time I found the station I was soaked through to the skin – never before have I missed my camino gear quite so much (it isn’t that my street shoes leak so much as they suck the water in and distribute it amongst my toes as equally as possible). But I didn’t know when I’d have another chance to see Pompeii, and figuring that I couldn’t really get much wetter anyway I decided to push on.

The Circumvesuviana is an Italian railroad in the three most important senses of the term – it’s cheap, it’s fast, and it’s covered in graffiti. A luxury travel experience it was not, but two euros and ten cents bought me a plastic bucket seat to Pompeii that got there a lot faster than any bus would have. The tunnels and bridges seemed to be competing with one another to see who could occupy the greatest amount of trackage. The terrain was so rough that one station was located literally in midair, on an arched bridge high over a valley floor, while another was located midway through a tunnel like a subway. We sped through it all – groves of orange trees with their black tarpaulins dripping in the rain, old castles built of red brick, and churches of pale stucco with laundry hanging to dry under corrugated awnings.

The station for the Pompeii ruins (Pompeii Scavi, the modern city is spelled with only one “i”) left me practically on the doorstep of the archaeological site. The modern city surrounds the ruins, but as nearly the entire Roman city is still intact the ruins are so large as to make one forget that there are real buildings with real people living in them only a short distance away. After renting an audioguide (free admission due to national culture week!) I made my way past the suburban bathing complex (incomplete at the time of the eruption) and through the city walls into Pompeii.

Pompeii requires one to readjust their concept of visiting an archaeological site. In most cases, such a site may be a building or two, or a city block, where three or four layers of masonry are all that’s left of the various buildings (which have then been built over time and time again in the two thousand years since). Usually I’m left squinting at the displays, looking back and forth between the ruins and the sketches trying to figure out just exactly which part of the fishery I’m standing in. Barcelona has a site much like this near the old cathedral – underground, a block of the old roman city has been unearthed, but as the different centuries are all muddled together the foundation of a church may also be the corner of a bakery, built from the reused materials of the first city wall. It can be a bit like seeing in four dimensions at once.

Pompeii is not at all like that. When I stepped through the gate, I found myself on a street, lined on either side with buildings, stretching out towards the forum. There was a sidewalk on both sides, and places where pedestrians could cross without going all the way down into the street by way of huge stepping stones (the gaps between them allowed chariots to pass through). The tops of most of the buildings were missing, of course, as the pyroclastic flow had swept them away, but in some of the lower parts of the city the buildings had intact second stories as well.

And there is no prescribed path that visitors must follow – the whole city is there, just waiting to be explored. I found myself free to wander as I wanted, and that’s what I did – down side streets, through the back entrances of homes, and around interior gardens (the city was so well preserved that plaster casts were taken of the petrified plant roots to determine what types of trees and shrubs had been used, and in many cases Pompeii has been replanted with the modern equivalents). Most buildings were brick or stone, covered in plaster that was then decorated. Bits and pieces of paintings have survived – a line of red trim, a plaster cornice. One villa, the home of a wine merchant, was filled with huge clay jars used to store his product (the vineyard behind it has been replanted and produces a wine known today as Villa del Misterioso).

The baths were particularly notable. Arranged around a central park, there were separate facilities for men and women on either side of a set of furnaces. The changing rooms had high barrel vaults, covered in plaster and decorated with the images of weapons, gods, and nature, all in relief set into octagonal panels (and still legible after two thousand years!). The Roman baths consisted of three different rooms – a frigidarium, with cold water; a tepidarium, with lukewarm water and a caledarium, with the hottest water. The latter two received heat from the furnaces via a series of under floor channels, made visible now in the ruins. Hot gasses from the fires passed through these channels under the floor, warming the water and the air above it. It’s a clever arrangement, really, much like the in-floor heating that is becoming popular in modern architecture.

The baths also had mostly intact roofing, meaning that the more delicate internal features had remained intact (particularly on the women’s side). The floors of the baths were covered in diamond patterned mosaics, laid in grout over the larger flat stones that made up the false floor. One marble basin in particular looked like it was brand new – the partially intact plaster ceiling still had a pattern of the stars painted on it.

The Roman equivalents of fast food restaurants were visible along the street, too. These were storefronts, usually on the corner, with a counter of garish stones and a series of small hollows where food was cooked. Fountains were usually nearby, as well, some of them repaired (with modern, non-leaded pipes) for tourists to drink from.

The amphitheater and sports grounds were interesting as well for the usual collection of two thousand year old graffiti (that I was first introduced to at the Colosseum in Rome). Pictures of ships, puzzle games scratched into the rock, curses directed to the politicians of the day . . . some things really do not change very much from one generation to the next.

In summary, Pompeii is stunning not just because of its size, but because of the uniformity of the time period that it captures. It is incredibly rare that we get more than the smallest snapshot of a day in the life of a human being from two thousand years ago, while Pompeii may be a snapshot of a very BAD day, it remains one of the most compelling examples of an abstract history made concrete that I have ever visited.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Camino Entries 24 and 25

Day 24, December 18th, 2011

Expenses, Day 24
Provisions: 4.85
Breakfast: 1.15
Albergue Municipal Estrella: 7.00
Provisions: 4.00
Total: 17.00
Trip Total: 528.16

Day 25, December 19th, 2011

Expenses, Day 25
Fruit, Vegetables, Chocolate: 3.25
Albergue: 10.00
Café con Leche: 1.10
Dinner, Provisions: 7.14

Yesterday was a hard day for only 20 kilometers. I had been up late the night before with Jay (British pilgrim, hippie, lives in converted church, makes jewelry out of bits of meteorities, 51 years old) and Ernesto (Venezuelan, recently divorced and changed jobs, wore jeans on the camino in winter (not a good idea), 56 years old) and didn’t get enough sleep. Also, I pulled something in my left shin the day before that on the way into Puente la Reina . . . I should know better than to try 31 kilometers in the rain and slippery mud. I took a couple bad falls, any one of them could have been the one to hurt my leg . . . and so yesterday was a tough day.

Today was better. The weather was better, and so was the leg. I slept about thirteen hours straight last night, which helped my body heal a little. I think that it should be okay by tomorrow. This is proof that somebody can be dumb no matter how many kilometers they’ve walked.

I told Jay and Ernesto my story about the mountain and victory over fear, and Ernesto said something interesting. “You’ve learned something about yourself . . . you’re not afraid to die.”

Hmm. I tried that out, saying it out loud to myself while walking the next day. “I am not afraid to die.” It isn’t quite the truth; I am afraid of death, and I am in no hurry to get there. But what is true is that when it comes to something I believe in (the camino, in this case, even though I don’t know why I believe in it) I will act in the face of the fear of death. Maybe that’s the same thing.

I feel good. It feels strong and powerful to say “I am not afraid of death,” and feel some kernel of truth resonate deep in my gut.

Because the threat of death was real there for a few moments, if extremely unlikely. My survival depended on two things: my ability to keep walking, and the weather staying clear. If I had broken an ankle and it had starting raining . . . who knows when anyone else would have come along. It was so, so dumb to set out across the mountains in the middle of winter with no food! I’m not gonna do that again.

Jean-Luc has set out for Barcelona in my tracks, doing the same path that I’ve just completed in reverse. He has a tent and a kitchen; I gave him my guidebook. He is looking for peace and solitude; I think he will find the latter, at least! I hope he has better luck than I did; he is a beautiful spirit and I wish him the best. It’s too bad that I didn’t get to walk with him further.

We are definitely in Basque country now – that’s what the strange language is with all the Ks and Zs (it’s called Euskara). There is lots of “Free the Basque Country!” and “Peregrino – you are not in Spain!” graffiti. Madrid probably disagrees with that second statement.

It’s Ursula’s 70th birthday today. She’s a retired schoolteacher from Germany and speaks fluent Spanish, English, German, and is working on her Italian. This is her fourth camino – the woman can walk me into the ground. It’s all like Jay says: “Tread lightly upon the Earth.” I’ve spent the past two days walking on a hurt leg, trying to just listen to the work my feet are doing . . . not trying to control it, just listening. The more I listen, the more I “tread lightly,” and the more I find my own stride. That’s the secret, I think, not strength or fitness. Technique.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Crystal Symphony Entry 12

Last night was the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. We also passed by the wreck of the Costa Concordia some time during the night. That's a strange set of coincidences.

But the ship is still afloat; we're docked now in Civitavecchia.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Poem(s) of the Day 4.13.12

Two poems for spring, both by Rumi.


When I see your face, the stones start spinning!
You appear, all studying wanders.
I lose my place.

Water turns pearly.
Fire dies down and doesn't destroy.

In your presence I don't want what I thought
I wanted, those three little hanging lamps.

Inside your face the ancient manuscripts
seem like rusty mirrors.

You breathe; new shapes appear,
and the music of a desire as widespread
as Spring begins to move
like a great wagon.
Drive slowly.
Some of us walking alongside
are lame!


Come to the orchard in Spring.
There is light and wine, and sweethearts
in the pomegranate flowers.
If you do not come, these do not matter.
If you do come, these do not matter.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Camino Entry 23

Day 23, December 17th, 2011

Mom would be so proud of me right now.

I arrived in the albergue in Puente la Reina at about 5pm after a 31km walk through rain, snow and sleet. It was like the Pyrenees were taking wet shits all over us. Patrick made it, too, I saw him as the brother was walking me over to the albergue.

Located at the confluence of the Caminos Aragones and Frances, Puente la Reina is a hub of pilgrim activity. The first two buildings I saw were private albergues. I'm in a different one, though, with nine other pilgrims. Nine! When the brother took me to the albergue (I arrived late and it was locked), I was almost totally overwhelmed by the sudden noise. The bunkroom was filled with people laughing and joking, wringing out wet clothing, making tea for each other, and bandaging themselves after conquering the Pyrenees. It smelled like wet dog. Mom would be proud because I cooked dinner for everyone.

Dinner was an interesting affair. The albergue here, run by the church, has a kitchen, and I volunteered to go searching for food. Jean Luc and Wanwoo came with me, two fellow pilgrims and new friends that I had just made in the albergue. A strange trio we made, speaking just enough English to communicate with each other and just enough Spanish to communicate with the locals.

Many stores were closed. Finally we found a artisan bakery that was open, where we purchased several large bags of pasta, a jar of tomato sauce, cheese, bread, and a big bar of almond choclate to split amongst the ten of us. The owner was very patient with our indecision and fairly terrible Spanish, even though she was about to close up – it would have been a hungry night if she hadn't!

Back in the albergue, I began cooking. There was a little bit of milk and Spanish chocolate, so I boiled the milk and made chocolate to tide everyone over while the water for the pasta boiled. Unfortunately, the electric stovetop was being a bit wonky and finally quit altogether before the water was boiling. We tried everything we could think of to get it working again, short of actually disconnecting it from the wiring of the building and reconnecting it (the substantial risk of fatal electrocution finally dissuaded me – Spain is not known for having talented electricians, and this albergue was no exception). It was beginning to look like a wet, cold day was going to be followed with a hungry night . . . finally the other pilgrims told me to go ask Jean Luc for help.

Jean Luc is a young man from France, about my age, who has been walking a considerable distance. He's been camping most of it in the wild, like Marten (the first pilgrim I met, from Essen), hence his massive pack (it has a tent and a kitchen in it, two things I've sorely missed). He's a quiet, thoughtful individual, and while I didn't know exactly what he was going to do to fix the stove (and save our dinner!) I followed the advice of the other pilgrims.

He was sitting on his bunk, facing away from me, when I entered the bedroom. It took a few tries to get his attention – I realized exactly too late that he had been practicing a form of Indian meditation known as Vipannasa and that I had just interrupted it. After a few profuse apologies (which he smiled and brushed off) I explained the situation to him. Jean Luc and I returned to the kitchen, where he took one look at the stove top and touched the power button just as we had done a hundred times.. It flashed back to life in an instant. Dinner was delicious.

I figured out later that the stove could get confused by too many quick inputs on the little touchscreen at the front, and that when it did it would lock up until the burners cooled and then reset itself. That's why it worked when Jean Luc tried it – they'd cooled sufficiently to reset. So it wasn't a miracle, exactly . . .

He and I fell to talking later. We had both journeyed through fairly remote areas to get here, and were both amazed and slightly overwhelmed by the number of pilgrims present in the albergue that night. He liked my stories of Catalunya and Aragon, and asked if he could borrow my guidebook for the Camino Catalan. I ripped out the page with the remaining distances to Santiago and gave it to him – it wasn't like I was going to need it again any time soon, after all.

Note: I never saw Jean Luc again. I found out later from the others that he took my guidebook and set out towards Barcelona, backwards along the path I had just taken. The Camino Frances was too crowded for him. I hope he made it.

So many stories! So many soulful individuals.

Tomorrow, I tread softly. Today is a day of harmony with the trail. I have been fighting impatience so much since my victory over San Juan de la Pena. I have been gaining strength and power; time to gain wisdom.

Expenses, Day 23

Albergue: 6.00

Dinner: 2.50

Total: 8.50

Trip Total: 511.16

Monday, April 9, 2012

Camino Entry 22

Day 22, December 16th, 2011
Expenses,Day 22
Pastries: 2.80
Supplies: 7.60
Albuergue: 7.00
MenuPeregrino: 10.00
Total: 27.40
Trip Total: 502.66

Thank goodness that the Monreal albergue is open!

Itwas cloudy today, then rainy, then rainy and windy. This is the first day of rain in 22 days. I'm fine with rain, but rain and wind and cold are pretty unpleasant together. There was some sleet as well.

The camino is stumbling back to the Albergue with Patrick at 9pm after an enormous Menu del Peregrino, a little drunk and knowing that you have 31km to go the next day. His wife likes that he goes on camino in the winter, because the Spanish whorehouses are closed in winter. Could this get any more Canterbury tales?

Carved into the entrance to a graveyard: “Yo que fui, lo que tu eres. Tu seras, lo que yo soi.” "I was what you are. You'll be what I am."

Friday, April 6, 2012

Camino Entry 21

Day 21, December 15th, 2011
Expenses, Day 21
Resupply (bread, OJ, chorizo): 4.40
Pensión Peregrino: 20.00
Resupply (bread, pastry): 3.30
Fruit: 0.87
Café con leche: 1.10
Total: 29.67
Trip Total: 475.26

Today was a beautiful day for traveling (but aren’t they all?). I spent most of the morning climbing out of the ghost town of Ruesta (pop. = us) along the ridge through logging country. I crested the ridge around 11am and descended through scrub and finally farmland to Sangüesa. I arrived around 3 or 4 in the afternoon – it was a short day of only 22.4km. 25km tomorrow and 30km to Puente la Reina the day after (note: there are two Puente la Reinas on the Camino Aragonés). I crossed the border from Aragón to Navarra as well today.

Sangüesa is bilingual, but I can’t figure out what the other language is. It looks like a Slavic language, with lots of z’s all over the place (note: I discovered later that it is Euskara, the native Basque language. More on this later).

I was fighting off a bit of impatience to be done with the camino today. If I had started from St. Jean Pied-de-Port (a common starting point for the modern pilgrim, located only a few days away in France) I would be only a week away from Santiago right now. With my victory a few days ago on the Camino Catalán, it is tempting to think that I’ve gotten what I need here and that it is time to move on . . . part of me hopes not. I hope that there is more here for me. Keep teaching, camino . . . although one more easy day might be okay before the lessons start again.

And I haven’t reached Santiago. Where I might’ve started doesn’t matter; gotta keep going.

This morning I came to the conclusion that The Empire Strikes Back has the best soundtrack ever written, and that you could listen to just the music and understand the entire plot because of how strongly each character is written into the music. Luke’s theme, Han and Leia, the addition to the Imperial March that happens when the emperor enters . . . etc.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Camino Entry 20

Day 20, December 14th, 2012

Expenses, Day 20:
Albergue in Ruesta (Dinner, Bed, Breakfast tomorrow): 24.00
Breakfast: 3.00
Total: 27.00
Trip Total: 445.59

Today was my first full day on the Camino Aragonés.

The albergue last night was beautiful. Arrés is a tiny fortress town built on the strategic point of a pass through the mountains to the south. The albergue is a reclaimed building that used to be in ruins – I saw before/after pictures on the wall. The walls were standing but the rest was a ruin. That seems to be typical of Rómanesque architecture; floors and roofs are of fragile wood, while the walls are of thick, thick stone.

It is three stories inside. The back entrance is on the ground floor, along with the bathrooms. This floor is smaller than the others, as the raw stone of the mountainside protrudes into the space (creating an odd situation where the toilet and shower cubicles has windows looking onto raw stone). The second floor has two bedrooms, while the third has a kitchen and a living room (the main entrance is on the balcony between the second and third floors). There's also an attic above the stairwell with four more mattresses – 20 beds in all, maybe.

The other pilgrim is a Spaniard, 51 years old, and not actually grumpy. There's a third pilgrim, as well, a French doctor who is 56 and stayed last night in the hotel attached to the bar. We made an odd trio, drinking calimoxto and tossing bits of Spanish, French, and English back and forth.

On the trail yesterday before Arrés I came upon a strange sight. I was following the trail through some woods when I came upon a stony meadow. The stones had been moved off the path, though, and there were a couple small cairns on either side of the path. I climbed a small rise to see that the entire field of stones had been stacked by pilgrims into small cairns. There were hundreds – thousands of them! Some had messages carved or painted on them; others had small gifts or charms wound around the rocks. I left a small pile of my own, made from a few loose rocks nearby.

Since then I've been seeing little cairns with some regularity. There was an old ruined hermitage that I passed in a field; seeing what I though was graffiti, I took a look inside. It wasn't graffiti – it was one of thousands of pilgrim names scratched into the remaining plaster. On the alter was a pile of stones in the shape of a heart. In other places were a small fire pit and a cross made of loose rock, as well as a tin labeled (ironically, I think) “donativo” (or donations, the typical sign in albergues above the box where one pays). I'd like to think that the monks who used to live here would appreciate that the pilgrims are using the ruins for shelter.

Speaking of rocks, I spent much of today walking among a very strange stone. It is gray, very soft, and erodes in small flakes. You can scrape pieces off of boulders just by running your hand along the face – a shower of chips about an inch long and an eighth of an inch thick will follow your fingers. It is very soft to walk on and eventually becomes sticky gray mud.

No plants grow on this rock, but I believe that it is because the roots of any sprouting seeds dislodge the very rock that they try to latch on to, rather than because of any toxicity of the rock itself (although I could be wrong). The strange erosion properties mean that the soft gray rock forms hillsides of sensuous curves, like Picasso painting a voluptuous woman.

Taking a break, I climbed one of the little hills. The way the stone breaks into such small chunks means that it tends to recreate larger landscapes in miniature. I felt like a giant steeping over valleys and rivers . . .

Sometimes a vein of more normal red rock runs through the gray stone. As it erodes, it leaves red “boulders” that fall down the small valleys. It's a whole geological cycle in miniature.

As I passed Artieda, I noticed a change in the landscape. The path followed a narrow green tunnel, sunk beneath the fallow fields and between stone walls that were being torn apart by the invading undergrowth. It was beautiful, but very empty. Not creepy, like before, as this land felt like it was supposed to be empty, but I didn't know why.

Coming in to Ruesta, I saw the remains of an old tower. Nothing special about that – there are lots of ruined towers in Spain, after all. There were other ruined buildings around it, too, and the road had been in an unusual state of disrepair for quite some time (when I could find it all, that is). There were quite a lot of ruined buildings, and as the cracked asphalt led me into town I realized that some of them were much more recent than the keep. Maybe even 20th century . . . what had happened here?

There were a few buildings that showed signs of very recent renovation. These belong to the albergue, a massive affair with 100 beds. It is the only inhabited building in town.

After asking around a little bit, I found out that this whole area was flooded with the construction of a dam. After years, they decommissioned it, and people returned to the area only to find that soil was no longer good for farming. This is why Ruesta is a ghost town, with only an albergue remaining. It is weird to think that this was all underwater at one point.

I love these Spanish soap operas. No one does them as well as the Spanish. They're all set in different time periods – the one on right now is set during the wars with Napolean. Fantastic.

There is a great picture here of people hiking in to the ruins of the city after the dam has been decommissioned. It's like they've found a ruined city on a forgotten planet, or the lost island of Atlantis.